When many regions of Italy are winding down for the winter months, now is the perfect moment for visiting Piedmont, and in particular, Langhe-Roero e Monferrato, a tiny territory and UNESCO World Heritage landscape. The global phenomenon that is the Slow Food Movement was founded here and it is not hard to understand why. Most obviously, this is where you’re likely to find a white truffle but look at the other end of the spectrum and remember the humble grissini were invented in Piedmont as was the breakfast fave nutella. Almost every hill town and small village celebrates food in some way, and, unlike the more touristy regions of Italy, you can almost guarantee to eat well in the majority of restaurants.
A classic Piemontese menu consists of antipasti such as vitello tonnato (veal with tuna sauce – trust me), carne cruda (raw, hand-cut beef), salumi and insalata russa. The highlight obviously is the pasta: tajarìn, the legendary hand-cut tagliolini with at least eight egg yolks per pound of flour or agnolotti del plin, the finest ravioli under the sun no matter what the filling.
Piazza Duomo Alba is the wine and food capital of Piedmont, and Piazza Duomo with its 3 Michelin stars is the self-appointed Mecca. Talented chef Enrico Crippa never fails to impress including dishes such as the 41 salad containing said number of ingredients picked each morning from his nearby orto. Don’t forget Piazza Duomo is owned by the Ceretto winemaking family – ask the restaurant to organise a visit to their futuristic Cube Cantina, or drive out into the hills to see another stunning artwork – their chapel painted in a kaleidoscope of colours by Sol LeWitt. Advance booking essential.
Piazza Duomo’s little sister La Piola, also in the main piazza, is ideal for equally delicious yet less formal lunch. Order from the menu scratched on the blackboard which changes daily and sit in the glass cube on the square. Piola is Piemontese dialect for a local village Osteria.
Osteria dell’Arco The sister restaurant to Slow Food’s flagship restaurant Osteria del Boccondivino (see Bra).This smart Osteria is reassuringly old school with a reassuringly short menu of only four options for each course. If it was us we’d forgo everything on the menu and opt for plate after plate of their tajarin al burro. The dining room in the cantina is cosier in winter for dinner.
Locanda del Pilone This elegant restaurant is located on the top of a hill known as ‘Madonna di Como’, just south of Alba, unsurprisingly the views are superb. Under the guidance of 2 Michelin star chef Tonino Cannavacciuolo, but effectively run by his Japanese prodigy Masayuki Kondo, the menu is based on skilfully re-interpreted traditional dishes from Piedmont and – rather surprisingly – from Naples. This is one of the few restaurants in the area that excels in fish.
San Marco Canelli is one of the prettiest towns in Piedmont, embraced by vineyards that produce the famous Asti Spumante and the fruity Moscato pudding wine. San Marco is run by the delightful Mariucia and Piercarlo who’ve been here forever, as have the wonderfully kitsch interiors. The menu is local and seasonal, and, hands dow, San Marco is the unofficial winner of the Bellini award for tajarin con tartufo bianco.
Trattoria della Posta A wonderful restaurant set in rolling vineyards not far from Monforte and run by the same family since 1875, with its roaring fire and cosy dining room, this is the perfect place for lunch or dinner a deux. It is also a favourite spot for the local wine makers, some of whom are given the same deference as the Royal family and quite rightly so – if you’re in luck you’ll see them comparing, jostling and occasionally squabbling over each other’s vintages
Osteria da Gemma A good place to discover rustic Piedmont cooking in a charming osteria in the small village of Roddino. Extremely good value considering the vast portions which can be overwhelming, especially the antipasti which are a meal in themselves. Secondi include classics such as a tender veal stew braised in Barolo or the local version of steak tartare known as carne battuta.
Antica Torre Angelo Gaja’s favourite trattoria and where he can be spotted having lunch three or four times a week. Not only do they stock Signor Gaja’s quite remarkable wines, but the chef makes the fantastic tajarin, meticulously hand-sliced every morning
Osteria del Boccondivino Upstairs and tucked away in the courtyard of the Slow Food Movement’s HQ, this cosy little spot, lined with wine bottles was the very first to be opened by the emerging organisation back in the 1980s. Perfect for a foggy autumnal day when the countryside might feel a little overbearing. Quite rightly, the food is excellently sourced, and the local Langhe menu changes daily.
Rocchetta Tanaro, Near Asti
Trattoria I Bologna The perfect place for a long, lazy lunch. There is no menu, and the dishes just keep coming – seven courses plus four desserts for around 50 euros – with dishes including eggs baked with cream and truffles followed by braised horse cheek. And if you drink too much, they have a B&B above the trattoria.
Combal Zero The Italian equivalent of El Bulli offers a truly unique dining experienced. Located within contemporary art museum Castello di Rivoli‘s outpost in the 13th century town castle, chef Davide Scabin creates a series of unforgettable dishes involving helium balloons, exploding Campari capsules and much more.
Piedmont has been producing wine since classical times: The Roman historian Livy mentions Barbaresco in 30 BC, whilst Asti wines were recorded as early as the 13th Century. The Langhe, Roero e Monferrato territory is heavily steeped in some of Italy’s very best. Of Italy’s DOGT appellations, one of the most highly acclaimed is Barolo, a full-bodied dry produced from Nebbiolo grapes (Langhe’s native grape), as well as Barbaresco, also produced from Nebbiolo with a similarly rich, luscious flavour, though with a more pronounced tannic acidity. Barbera d’Alba, once a rustic red, has undergone ten years’ refinement and is now an acclaimed DOC, as is the fruity Dolcetto d’Alba.
Whilst the Langhe is home to internationally adored giants such as old-school Pio Cesare, Fontanafredda and avant-garde Ceretto with its contemporary art installations dotting the hills, you can also find small family-run vineyards which survive on just a few hectares, so high is the yield and indeed the demand.
The most famous of the region’s festivals is the Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco which takes place in Alba every October and November. Stalls are positively groaning with truffles (although be warned not all are local and many are imported from Slovakia and alas there have been rumours of synthetic ones too) which you can drive a hard bargain for. Job done, pocket the white gold and head to a local trattoria who, on request, should grate it over your tajarin or fried eggs. The smaller festivals are often far more amusing than the obvious ones, and you’ll also find much better prices for white truffles which bizarrely are often to be found in the local farmacie (pharmacies) as chemists still carry a license to sell them.
Truffles aside, in late September, Bra hosts a festival called quite simply and brilliantly ‘Cheese’. The humble hazelnut is celebrated in late August with the Sagra del Nocciola in the village of Cortemilia near Alba, and the Fiera del Marrone celebrating the chestnut takes place every October in Cuneo.